Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Tom McCormack: Laws of Desire -- What did David Cronenberg's Videodrome get right about us?

Laws of Desire: What did David Cronenberg's Videodrome get right about us?
by Tom McCormack
Moving Image Source

It can be both fun and necessary to revisit famously prescient works of art and take account of just what they got right.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell was right that the most successful authoritarian regimes of the future would limit dissent by using mass media to control our conceptual tools. He was wrong about how they would do it; instead of issuing messages through a unified voice, the most durable authoritarianism has flourished by dispersing control among a small set of global corporations that justify their outsized power through their success in the marketplace. In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley was right that sexual freedom and the triumph of therapy culture would develop alongside rigid class structures. The mainstream acceptance of casual sex and prescription pharmaceuticals really did happen alongside a consolidation of class power—a radical one we're still reeling from. But in Huxley this was accomplished through an exaggeration of class difference and an expanded language for class; in reality, the culture witnessed the atrophy of a language for class and an erasing of outward signs of class in terms of professed values, fashion, and manners of speech (hence "bourgeois bohemians" and "the millionaire next door").

David Cronenberg's Videodrome offered in 1983 a vision of dystopia that rivaled in ambition and sweep and foresight Orwell's and Huxley's more famous works. So what did Videodrome get right? And what, if anything, did it get wrong?

Cronenberg was right that new technologies would unleash a craving for scenes of increasingly extreme and increasingly realistic—if not just plain real—sexual violence. He was right about what this violence would look like ("No plot, no characters. Very realistic"); why the entertainment industry would turn to it ("I'm looking for something that will break through. Something tough!"); and how those in the media would talk about it ("It's absolutely brilliant. I mean look: there's almost no production cost!"). He was right that many people would experience these new products as addictive and would report a psychic bleed into the texture of their daily lives, frequently to their great concern.

Cronenberg was right, in a more subtle way, about what would cause the cultural turn to sexual violence. The movie isn't called "photodrome" or "cinemadrome"—it's not about the nature of mechanical reproduction or motion pictures but about the consequences of private access to public imagery. Professor Brian O'Blivion, Videodrome's resident philosopher, tells us that the television has become the "retina of the mind's eye"; that "the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain." What he's talking about is what contemporary social scientists studying the Internet call—borrowing terms from psychoanalysis—"solipsistic introjection." This refers to the tendency of individuals to believe, on at least a semi-conscious level, that things happening on their electronic devices are actually happening inside their heads. Describing how this effect works in online chat rooms, John Suler writes:

Reading another person's message might be experienced as a voice within one's head, as if that person magically has been inserted or "introjected" into one's psyche... The online companion now becomes a character within our intrapsychic world, a character that is shaped partly by how the person actually presents him or herself via text communication, but also by our expectations, wishes, and needs... People fantasize about flirting, arguing with a boss, or very honestly confronting a friend about what they feel. In their imagination, where it's safe, people feel free to say and do all sorts of things that they wouldn't in reality. At that moment, reality IS one's imagination. Online text communication can become the psychological tapestry in which a person's mind weaves these fantasy role plays, usually unconsciously and with considerable disinhibition. All of cyberspace is a stage and we are merely players.

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